- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A watchdog group sued the IRS on Monday, accusing the agency of failing to store instant messages as part of its official records, and demanding a federal judge step in and order the agency to comply with the Federal Records Act.

Conservative group Cause of Action had tried to use open records laws to get a peek at top IRS officials’ messages, but was told the agency only stored instant messages for a maximum of 14 days, then wiped them in order to clear up storage space under a deal the IRS struck with its labor union.

That, however, runs afoul of federal policy, which says computer instant messages, like text messages, should be treated the same as emails and stored for posterity if they detail substantive agency business.

“It appears that federal records are being deleted because the IRS, in a deal with its employee union, refuses to preserve certain types of electronic communications,” said Alfred J. Lechner Jr., president of the Cause of Action Institute.

Federal agencies have had trouble keeping up with technology, leaving many of them in violation of policies governing phone text messages and computer instant messages.



Watchdogs fear unscrupulous federal employees are turning to text messages and other electronic communications as a way to avoid the scrutiny that accompanies emails and more traditional government records.

Indeed, a Washington Times report in 2013 detailed agencies’ struggles to cope with advancing technology.

The National Archives and Records Administration says there shouldn’t be any confusion: Electronic messages should be treated like any other government records. The archives said that’s been its policy for years, and reiterated the standards in 2015, saying agencies needed to develop policies to make sure important computer instant messages, cellular text messages and voice messages are saved.

The IRS said Tuesday it couldn’t comment on a pending court case, but said its policy does require employees to store records that pertain to official business.

“If instant messaging is used to conduct official business, then the communication needs to be saved for records retention purposes,” the IRS said in a statement. “The IRS is in the process of updating its guidance for employees related to instant messaging, which remains an area of rapid change given evolving technology.”

Cause of Action launched its probe after the IRS admitted former senior executive Lois G. Lerner’s computer hard drive crashed, losing potentially thousands of her emails in the process.

The IRS‘ internal investigation also revealed that agency employees used Microsoft Office Communications Server for instant chats, but those messages were not saved.

Cause of Action said the reason was because of a 2010 agreement between the tax agency and the National Treasury Employees Union that set limits on the system. But IRS employees, in one email obtained by the group, blamed “lack of space available to store any more information.”

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